Anger gets a bad rapt. We do not like it when someone is angry with us, and often as not we do not like being angry ourselves because it makes us feel out-of-control.
And yet without anger we would never assert ourselves. We feel angry when we believe some kind of violation has occurred. Someone did something they should not have done, or vice versa, they did not do something they should have done. Either way, a standard or rule has been broken. Anger is the emotion that prompts us to assert our rights. Do not tread on us, our anger wants us to say. You may not hurt me, abuse me, or take advantage of me. These are all good things, no?
Then again, why do we fear anger so much?
The obvious answer is that not everyone expresses their anger well. It's one thing to be so angry at your boss you throw a brick through her car's windshield. It's another thing to walk down to her office after a cooling off period and calmly express your grievance. Both scenarios have anger at their base. But the latter is vastly more adaptive.
If anger is to be expressed well, if must be governed by some measure of thought. Emotion prompts action; thought governs it. We can be angry without being aggressive or violent. We can be angry without raising our voice, making threatening gestures, or using profane language. We can be angry without making empty threats.
Anger is there to help you watch out for yourself. Where would you be be without it?
Expressing anger in therapy is easy enough. Anger is an easy emotion to label and, it seems, discharge.
Usually we know when we feel sad, but deep grief, sobbing grief, is something we often fear. Some will try to avoid it altogether. Others will express it, just not in front of a therapist.
Guilt nags at us. It’s uncomfortable but not unbearable, and often it is accompanied by a nagging sense that we need to make things right.
Anguish is psychological pain. When it’s bad, it’s gut-wrenching. When it’s mild, we are upset, distressed, unsettled. We want it to stop.
Shame is a powerful emotion. When we fee ashamed, we feel don’t just feel that we have done bad (guilt), but that we are bad. Shame prompts us to withdraw, pull back, or even hide if the emotion is intense enough. To be “exposed” would be having our badness revealed. Better to cover.
Sometimes the emergence of emotions are preceded by anxiety. Anxiety is easy to understand when it is directed at something external–-a social situation, a snake, a spotlight on performance. But we can feel anxious in responses to our own emotions, too. Indeed, sometimes the anxiety is so pressing that we believe it is the only thing we feel, and it takes some reflection to identify the deeper emotions that are behind it. Negative emotions, especially powerful emotions like deep grief or shame, are necessary, just not always welcome.
Broadly speaking, emotions are true guides. Without them, we would not be able to make good decisions, have preferences, values, responses to danger, know when we have been violated, or recover from loss. Emotions are a very important part of therapy, especially when someone is trying to recover from emotional injury.
When a toddler is happy, she hugs. When she is distressed or sad, she cries. When she is frightened, she runs. Toddlers are not conflicted about their emotions. They do not worry about the time or place when expressing them. Adults, however, must learn to control their emotions, express them at appropriate times, in some cases conceal them, and understand how they relate to perceptions, thoughts, and actions. But sometimes this process gets off track. Sometimes we have to stop and relearn how to identify, experience, express, or regulate emotions before we can move on with life.
Human beings do not operate strictly according to logic and reason. We are emotional creatures, for better or worse. Therapy is simply one way of helping you sort things out.
There are few emotional experiences more painful than shame.
When we feel guilty, we realize we have transgressed. We have committed an act that violates our moral and ethical ideals. But when we feel ashamed, we feel as though the entire self is bad, not just one sequence of behavior. We feel inadequate, unworthy, bad to the core.
In therapy, clients frequently have trouble distinguishing between these two emotional states, especially when they're trying to label what they feel. But one way we tell them apart is by the actions that each state engenders. We when feel guilty, we feel motivated to make amends –– to take action to repair the damage. But when we feel ashamed, we feel exposed, vulnerable, and we want to withdraw from others. In extreme moments of shame, we may even try to hide.
Shame is often at the core of many emotional problems. Shame is painful. As a result, our psyches have to find a way to help us deal with this emotion. So we avoid, withdraw from others, engage in various forms of self-attack (self-hate), or other attack (projecting our self-hate onto other people). We might use one or all of these forms of defense. Sometimes, dare I say often, the defense, which was originally designed by our psyche to help us cope, begins to look like a problem. Depression, disordered eating patterns, self-injurious behaviors –- these are just a few examples of problems that may be tied to an underlying self that feels inadequate, defective, inferior.
Whenever I discover a vault of shame in one of my therapy clients, I tread lightly. Too much press makes the person feel more vulnerable than they already feel. And yet, if therapy is to do the person any good, explore it we must. The vault must be opened if the heart, mind and soul are to be restored.